Fake @ Steppenwolf Theatre

Kate Arrington and Francis Guinan

Humans are inherently curious creatures. I’m not speaking about our strange behaviors — that’s not my intention of the word “curious” — but rather our incessant need to seek out the truth.

Modern scientific methods have helped us achieve this goal, but scientific discovery is driven by humans who, inherently, have their own beliefs, emotions and agendas that can cloud or color the truth.

And, for that matter, what is “the truth,” anyway? If we deeply believe something to be true, regardless of physical evidence, isn’t that enough?

Fake, a new play which is currently in previews, written and directed by Steppenwolf ensemble member Eric Simonson, explores these notions through the discovery and later debunking of the infamous “Piltdown Man,” one of modern science’s greatest hoaxes.

The play, which flips between 1914, two years after Piltdown Man’s “discovery,” and 1953, the year of the hoax’s debunking, connects the notion that belief, truth, curiosity and ego all work in concert to shape the evolution of thought. In doing so, a quintet of actors, led by the fantastic Francis Guinan, play dual roles, with often only a quick set change to transform characters.

Alan Wilder, Kate Arrington and Larry Yando in Steppenwolf's "Fake"
Alan Wilder, Kate Arrington and Larry Yando in Steppenwolf's "Fake"

As an added bonus: it’s also a compelling mystery. Arthur Conan Doyle (Guinan) is on his own quest to discover the truth about the hoax, and has recruited a ruthless, young American journalist (Kate Arrington) to suss it all out.

At times, Simonson’s script gets deeply philosophical in addressing science vs. religion and truth vs. belief. The mind tends to wander during these moments — at least mine and my theatre companion’s did.

I also took issue with the placement of the intermission — I think the show would benefit without one. As it is, the first act seems to end with a shoulder-shrug.

That said, the second act delivers excitement in its reveal of the “whodunnit?” and you leave the theatre armed with an excellent topic for the travel home.

Curiously, and I use that term in the best way possible, the play also includes a melancholy love story, which is introduced as a subplot in act one but slowly dominates the action and concludes the play. Perhaps it is Simonson’s idea that the truth of all things remains uncertain — including matters of the heart.

Fake plays September 10 – November 8, 2009 in Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. The press performance is Tuesday, September 22 at 7:30 p.m. More information, visit www.steppenwolf.org.

Photos courtesy of steppenwolf.org

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